Driving a Commercial Vehicle Without a CDL

The penalties for driving a commercial vehicle without a CDL and some exceptions to the laws.

The operation of an eighteen-wheeler or a school bus requires specific training and skills and, generally, a commercial driver's license (CDL). Operating a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) without the proper license and training is not only dangerous but it's illegal.

This article outlines what types of training and licenses are required to lawfully operate different CMVs, the penalties for unlawful operation, and some exceptions that allow you to operate a CMV without a CDL.

What Is Considered a "Commercial Vehicle"?

Generally, a "commercial vehicle" is any vehicle:

  • weighing 26,001 or more pounds
  • designed to carry hazardous materials, or
  • carrying 16 or more passengers.

For these types of vehicles, you generally need a CDL. However, a few exceptions exist for emergency response vehicles, RVs, and farm equipment used on or near the farm.

What Type of CDL Do You Need?

While each state makes its own laws governing CMV operation, most follow the Federal guidelines. Every state requires and issues CDLs to permit CMV operation. Different classes of CDLs permit the operation of different sizes and weights of vehicles and cargo, while special endorsements allow for the carrying of particular cargo.

CDL Classes

There are three classes of CDLs based on the weight of the truck and/or trailer(s).

Combined Weight

Tractor Weight

Trailer(s) Weight

Class A

26,001 or more pounds

26,001 or more pounds

Over 10,000 pounds

Class B

26,001 or more pounds

26,001 or more pounds

10,000 pounds or less

Class C

Under 26,001 pounds

Under 26,001 pounds

10,000 pounds or less

The higher CDL classes encompass the lower classes, meaning that a class A CDL holder can generally operate any size and weight of vehicle.

CDL Endorsements

Regardless of the size or weight of the vehicle, to transport certain cargo—such as schoolchildren or hazardous materials—the driver must have special endorsements. These endorsements require additional training and testing and are listed on the CDL.

What Happens If You Operate a Commercial Vehicle Without a CDL?

There are many situations that fall within the category of unlicensed CMV operation, including driving while suspended, driving with an expired license, and not holding the proper endorsements. The following is a breakdown of the different types of unlicensed CMV operation.

Drivers Who Have Never Held a CDL

If a driver has never been issued a CDL, operating a CMV is generally a misdemeanor. A conviction can typically lead to up to six months in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine. The offender might also be barred from operating or even applying to operate a CMV for up to 120 days.

Exceeding Class or Endorsement Limits

CDL holders can be cited for unlicensed CMV operating if the CDL does not cover the weight, length, or special requirements of the operated CMV.

For example, in order to drive a CMV with air brakes, the operator must take a special test and possess an air-brake endorsement on his or her CDL. Operating a CMV equipped with airbrakes without the proper endorsement is considered unlicensed CMV operation.

The penalties for this type of violation will generally be identical to those for operating a commercial vehicle with no CDL. Again, the violation is normally a misdemeanor and carries up to six months in jail, a maximum $1,000 in fines, and the 120-day driving (or CDL application) prohibition.

Operating a CMV with an Expired CDL

As an expired license is technically not a valid license, driving on an expired CDL can result in a misdemeanor unlicensed driving charge. But many states have a grace period of 30 days to renew your license. Prosecutors are often willing to dismiss the charge if the offender proves that they have since renewed their CDL.

Driving Without a License in Your Possession

Commercial drivers must have a valid CDL in their possession to lawfully operate a commercial vehicle. However, this is another situation where prosecutors are often willing to dismiss the violation if the driver later provides proof of a CDL that was valid at the time of the offense.

Driving With a Revoked CDL

There are many reasons a driver's CDL may be revoked but continuing to drive after revocation can result in harsh penalties.

Fines and Jail Time for Operating a CMV With a Revoked CDL

In most situations, driving with a suspended, revoked, or disqualified CDL will be charged as a standard driving without a license violation. Typically, this will be a misdemeanor charge and result in up to six months in jail and a maximum $1,000 in fines.

However, if the revocation was due to an impaired driving offense, the offender will face higher penalties and often mandatory jail time. Offenders with prior driving while revoked convictions will also face increased penalties.

Loss of CDL Privileges

The DMV will also take administrative action for a driving-while-revoked conviction. Upon receiving notice of a conviction, the DMV will revoke the driver's commercial driving privileges for one year (in addition to any existing revocation).

If the driver was initially revoked due to a major offense (such as a DUI) or has a prior driving-while-revoked conviction, the driver's CDL will be permanently revoked. In these situations, some states do offer a reapplication process after ten years.

Exceptions to CDL Requirements

There are a few situations where a person can lawfully operate a CMV without a CDL. These exceptions vary between states, so be sure to check local laws before hitting the road.

Farm-Related CDL Exceptions

In some states, farm owners are permitted to operate large machines (that qualify as CMVs) without a CDL as long as the operation is near the farm (typically, within 150 miles of the farm).

Military CDL Exceptions

The operation of large military vehicles is generally exempt from standard CDL requirements but only by on-duty military personnel.

Emergency Vehicle CDL Exceptions

Firetrucks and ambulances are often large enough to meet the definition of CMV, but emergency services personnel typically aren't required to hold a standard CDL. Generally, these emergency response drivers are given special training on how to operate their specific vehicles.

Recreational Vehicle CDL Exceptions

Standard RVs (motorhomes) generally meet the weight or size requirements to qualify as a CMV. However, you can typically operate an RV without having a CDL. Operating a for-hire coach would require a CDL and passenger endorsement.